If you are looking for something fun and interesting to get yourself and others out of the house (or the mall) this holiday season, why not take this two-stop field trip to the heart of San Antonio to visually experience the story of the important Latin American artist, Carlos Mérida.  

The mural by artist Carlos Mérida is wrapped during construction of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
The mural by artist Carlos Mérida is wrapped during construction of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mérida was born in Guatemala in 1891, but spent much of his life in Mexico. Some of his early and mid-career years were spent living in Paris, where he met European masters such as Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, as well as other Mexican artists studying in Europe such as Diego Rivera and Gerardo Murillo (also known as Dr. Atl.)

His mid-twentieth century works forged new ground by moving between representation and abstraction; intimate studio and public space; and European and indigenous influence. Thirty years after his death, his work still illustrates a diversity of materials and a viewpoint that broadens our cultural understanding in a beautiful, engaging, and colorful way.

Mérida at the Museum

First, head down to the San Antonio Museum of Art. The museum has many free hours, including the day after Christmas.

The San Antonio Museum of Art. Photo by Iris Dimmick.a
The San Antonio Museum of Art. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Although it will be tempting to visit other areas of the museum, set your sights on the Golden Gallery located on the second level of the east tower. Here you will find the museum’s collection of Mérida’s art, currently on view through January 29, 2017.

Upon entering the room, the artist’s diverse style is immediately apparent. Varied works – abstract, figurative, and representational, from deeply colorful to muted tones – fill the room.

On one wall, abstracted figures gather in earth tones on bark paper (Three Kings, 1965) and wood (Puc and the Magic Spell, 1961). On another, an abstract oil painting is clearly informed by Joan Miró (Birds of Paradise, 1936).

Jake Slater (left) and Noe Barenblat (right) observe Carlos Mérida's painting, Birds of Paradise at the San Antonio Museum of Art.
Jake Slater (left) and Noa Barenblat (right) observe Carlos Mérida’s painting, Birds of Paradise, at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Credit: Elise Urrutia for the San Antonio Report

Adjacent, a doubled series of identical gouache paintings and serigraph prints depict costumes of various regions of Mexico such as Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Morelos (1920s). Next, a collection of lithographs evokes the people and abstract landscapes of Guatemala (Images of Guatemala, 1925-1927). At center, a vibrant portfolio illustrates Guatemalan native costumes (Native Costumes of Guatemala, 1940).

Together, the paintings and prints span from the 1920s to 1965. Mérida’s freedom of movement between such a variety of styles and materials puts the viewer at ease with his interplay between European and indigenous Mexican cultural influences. Apparently, in Mérida’s world, although the ties to indigenous culture were compelling and strong, a creative mind simply could not ignore the opening of one world to another.

Mérida Downtown

Next, head downtown and park near the Henry B. Gonzalez’s Lila Cockrell Theatre. Or take the VIVA Culture Bus from the museum to the Alamo and walk to the theatre balcony, looking west across the San Antonio River. From this vantage point, you can see Mérida’s large mosaic mural, which is located outdoors across the river from the theatre.

Elise Urrutia stands in front of Carlos Mérida's large mosaic mural at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
Elise Urrutia stands in front of the upper portion of Carlos Mérida’s large mosaic mural when it was indoors at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Credit: Mark Schlesinger for the San Antonio Report

The mural is currently situated in an area under construction. In the near future, park grounds will surround the mural, which serves as a gateway to the center’s western entrance.

Although many have never have seen this mural before, it has been in this exact spot for nearly 50 years, since November 1967. Prior to the newly remodeled convention center, the mural resided indoors.

During the remodeling, the mural remained in place while the building around it was demolished and converted to an outdoor space. 

A November 23, 1967 issue of the San Antonio Light (page 66) provides great detail about the indoor installation. Commissioned by Nancy and Alfred Negley for Hemisfair ’68, the 42×40-ft., two-million-piece glass mosaic was assembled into approximately one-ft. modules in Mexico City by Mosaicos Italianos. It was then wrapped and shipped here by truck, and reassembled on site within the old convention center building.

Mérida goes to great effort to credit the craftspeople who participated, and in fact the mural is signed by both Mérida and the firm which assisted him.

A river barge passes by the construction site working around the mural by artist Carlos Mérida.
A river barge passes by the construction site working around the mural by artist Carlos Mérida. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“This is not the work of one man,” said Mérida, who likened his role to that of the “conductor of an orchestra.”

The article’s author concludes by pointing out that “Viewers see a blaze of many forms, a representation of an Aztec temple, Arabian fezzes, a Moorish knight, masked faces, a hand stretching upward, with colors fusing and blending in an easy flowing transition.”

In response to Hemisfair’s theme of “the Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” Mérida, 75 years old at the time, expressed great hope for the longevity of the mural, and stated that the mural illustrates “the development of mankind throughout the world.”

Mérida’s work of the 1960s, which includes the mosaic mural as well as two paintings at the SA Museum of Art, portrays the many influences of his life and art coming together. Representation and abstraction, which in his earlier works were separated, are now combined and the works express mixture as a hopeful sign for the future. 

Although many convention-goers likely walked past the mural over the last 48 years, citizens of San Antonio, after the World Fair, did not have much reason to go inside this part of convention center building. Fortunately, with the center’s renovation, the mural will be easily accessible to citizens and visitors alike, allowing San Antonio to reflect Carlos Mérida’s message of openness and resolution.

Anne Elise Urrutia is a longtime San Antonian and writes on a variety of topics including history, art, and music. She is the author of the book Miraflores: San Antonio’s Mexican Garden of Memory, forthcoming...